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Five years ago, four years ago, three years ago, two years ago, one year ago, one month ago.

Regardless of the time, there was never a point prior to last week when anyone — save perhaps for Travis Shaw himself — would have forecast that Shaw might emerge as the Red Sox’ Opening Day third baseman.

For the Red Sox, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, had Shaw seemed more like a clear-cut future big league third baseman, it’s entirely possible that he never would have been on their team in the first place.

Still, the fact that Shaw has forced his way into consideration for an Opening Day start represents an improbable development that mandates a double-take: How did he get here, and why didn’t anyone see this coming?


To Shaw, the answers are less important than the fact that the questions existed. Though he grew up in a big league clubhouse, the son of two-time All-Star Jeff Shaw, the soft-spoken 25-year-old never felt a sense of entitlement.

He was a ninth-round draft pick who never received top prospect billing in the Red Sox farm system, even as he frequently outperformed more highly ranked players. Even in a system that showed more faith in him than anyone else — first in drafting him out of high school in the 32d round in 2008, then taking him again out of Kent State in 2011 — there was an understanding that he would have to perform his way up the ladder.

“Nothing was going to get handed to me,” said Shaw. “I wasn’t a high-round, money guy. There wasn’t a ton invested in me.

“I feel like I’ve got to produce. You’re not going to get moved on because of your prospect status. I’ve never had that behind me. It’s always kind of driven me to prove people wrong. Playing with these guys in Salem and Double A, I thought I was just as good if not better than them.”


So, then, why was it so hard to see what Shaw might become?

Not fitting the profile

Two-hundred ninety-one players were drafted in front of Shaw in 2011. Why?

“Good question,” said Jon Adkins, the area scout who signed Shaw for the Red Sox.

“I don’t know,” said Red Sox vice president of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye, the team’s director of the 2011 draft.

“The draft can be a crap shoot sometimes,” said Red Sox amateur scouting director Mike Rikard, the team’s national cross-checker in 2011. “It was a little bit surprising he was there.”

In three years at Kent State and a summer in the Cape Cod League, he’d performed well. He was the son of a big leaguer in an industry that places tremendous value on bloodlines.

Kent State had a sizable accompaniment of scouts throughout the year, given that it had righthander Andrew Chafin, who ended up going in the first round (No. 43 overall).

But a few factors worked against Shaw’s draft status. First, there was the question of his position.

“Going into college, my coach told me, ‘You’re not going to play third base. We’re going to switch you to first,’ ” said Shaw. “That never happened. I started as a freshman. I’ve always trusted my ability to play third.”

Still, many scouts looked at Shaw’s sizable frame and the fact that he wasn’t a burner and arrived at the assessment that he was likely to play first in the big leagues. Adkins saw something else.


“I gave him a chance to stick at third,” recalled Adkins, now a Northeast region cross-checker for the Dodgers. “I get it. It’s a big-bodied guy, the things you always say, but every time I saw him, whether it was his instincts, he was always positioned right.

“The feet worked for a big fella. He had plenty of arm for over there. I thought at a reactionary position, he’d be fine. I didn’t think he’d be a Gold Glove over there, but I thought it would be plenty enough.”

For those teams that viewed Shaw as a first baseman, however, the absence of head-spinning bat speed limited the view of his power potential. Further, the fact that Shaw came from a mid-major college program rather than a powerhouse conference made it easy to overlook his three solid years of performance at Kent State.

“There are guys who have snuck through the cracks a little bit at those schools,” said Rikard. “That would be my best explanation.”

Adkins recalled that at the start of 2011, Shaw failed to carry forward his level of play from his sophomore year, when he hit .330/.458/.622 with 14 homers. Though Shaw ended his junior year with a .307/.401/.553 line, his stumble out of the gate may have led some teams to lower him on their priority list.


But with the encouragement of Rikard (then a national cross-checker) and regional cross-checker Fred Peterson, Adkins stayed on Shaw, to see if he’d make the adjustments that would allow his advanced approach and natural ability to drive the ball to left-center to play. The Sox saw a player who consistently got the barrel of the bat in position to drive the ball.

“I give [Peterson] credit,” said Adkins. “He said, ‘Let’s stay on this guy. This is one of the better swings in my region.’ ”

“He always had a good swing. It wasn’t plus bat speed or anything like that, but everything worked easy. It was rhythmic. He had bounce at the plate. It was solid swing mechanics and he had an idea of the strike zone up there. He worked counts and did things in an advanced manner.”

When the Red Sox drafted Shaw in the ninth round that year, they thought he had a chance to be a find. Still, they didn’t make it easy for him.

Traffic ahead

Travis Shaw is hitting .353 in spring games this year.
Travis Shaw is hitting .353 in spring games this year.USA Today Sports

For much of Shaw’s first few years with the Red Sox, the corner infield spots offered anything but a clear path forward, a fact underscored when the Sox moved him off of third base early in his pro career after he played both corners in his 2011 debut in short-season Single A Lowell.

“I thought I played a decent third in Lowell,” said Shaw. “Then I kind of got pushed off the position for a few years.”

In retrospect, it’s startling to consider those who seemingly blocked Shaw’s path at third base. There was Will Middlebrooks, of course, who in 2012 seemed as if he might be laying claim to the position for years to come. One level below Shaw at the start of 2012, Garin Cecchini was regarded as one of the team’s top prospects.


“Third base didn’t look very promising for the future,” recalled Shaw. “The switch to first was fine to me at that time.”

Still, that switch occurred in deference to other less-heralded players as well, including fallen prospects such as Michael Almanzar in Salem and Derrik Gibson in Portland. But first base didn’t look any more promising with Adrian Gonzalez signed through 2018.

Yet Shaw didn’t dwell on the depth charts. He instead took a blue-collar approach to creating his own opportunities.

“It’s kind of like he’s been preparing for this his whole life,” said Shaw’s agent, Joe Bick, who also represented Jeff Shaw. “He grew up in the clubhouse. His dad has always taught him, ‘Don’t take any of this for granted. If you want to make this happen, you’ve got to make it happen by how hard you work.’ ”

Shaw followed that advice, and the crowds started to clear in front of him, even as his results proved unsteady in his move through the minors. After his strong 2012 performance in Salem (.305/.411/.545) that earned him a late-season promotion to Double A Portland, he sputtered in 2013 while trying to hit for a prototypical first baseman’s power.

He made adjustments after that offseason. The ability to recognize what he had done wrong and adapt underscored a crucial trait that Adkins had identified early.

“His junior year, it didn’t get off to the start he would have liked, but it told a lot about him as a player the way he grinded through that, made adjustments, and was able to get it going at the end of the year,” said Adkins. “Those are good attributes to have.

“Most guys — I’m not saying all — are going to fail at some point during their minor league careers. Sometimes, getting through that, that’s the big obstacle that gets you through to the big leagues.”

Shaw moved up to Pawtucket in 2014, and even though his numbers in 2015 were unimpressive (.249/.318/.356), he felt his swing was in a good place by the time he made his mark down the stretch in the big leagues. After a couple of brief early-season promotions, Shaw came up for good on Aug. 1, hitting .275/.332/.507 with 13 homers in 56 games.

For many, that performance changed the outlook on what Shaw might become. It wasn’t hard to envision a Daniel Nava-ish contributor, a lefthanded bat with a sweet swing (and more pop than Nava) who provided value through his ability to handle three corner positions.

But Shaw saw something more as he entered the offseason. Though the Sox appeared likely to entrust first base to Hanley Ramirez, third base to Pablo Sandoval, and left field to Rusney Castillo, Shaw didn’t want to simply accept the notion that his future would be as a bench option.

“I was able to make the most of my opportunity and kind of run with it,” said Shaw. “At the end of the year, going home, I was motivated. The success I had in August and September pushed me to want to do more and prepare to be an everyday guy, because I didn’t think what happened last year was a fluke. I think that could be a telling sign of who I am in the future, and so I wanted to prepare like I was going to start this year.”

In the Youkilis mold

Shaw recognized that there weren’t clear openings at either corner infield spot, but he wanted to make a case that he was worthy of an everyday role in the big leagues. So he prepared himself physically for either position, becoming leaner and stronger in a way similar to another fellow from the Cincinnati area who made his mark with the Red Sox, Kevin Youkilis.

“Kevin became more athletic over the course of time,” said Bick, who also represented Youkilis. “Travis has done so also. Both Ohio kids, both lower draft choices out of lower-profile colleges, the positions . . . there are some interesting comparisons.”

There are differences, of course, starting with the fact that their on-field demeanor couldn’t be more distinct, with Shaw displaying a perpetual sense of equanimity that contrasts with the boil at which Youkilis played.

Still, in his own understated way, Shaw has embraced his obscure beginnings as a source of motivation.

“It keeps you on your toes every day,” he said. “It keeps me playing for something. You can never settle. When you don’t settle and don’t expect things to come to you, that’s when you play at your best.”

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@alexspeier.